Father of the Faithful

Because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son . . . in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the seashore . . . and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.—Genesis 22:16-18

Probably no one in the Old Testament is as broadly recognized as a better example of faith than Abraham. His willingness to sacrifice his dearly loved and long promised son, is so remarkable a testimony to his faith, it is a milestone along the stream of human history, perhaps unequalled until the appearance of our savior himself.

The narrative of Abraham’s life consumes more than a quarter of the book of Genesis, from chapters 11 through 25, and covers more than 100 years of his life. There are three main segments in the narrative, interrupted by a thirteen year hiatus between chapters 16 and 17, and a longer gap between chapters 21 and 22.

Abraham’s Family

Chapter 11 details Abram’s lineage and family members. Verse 26 says “Terah lived seventy years, and begat Abram, Nahor, and Haran.” Abram is listed first because of his prominence, but he was not the firstborn. Verse 32 says his father died at age 205, at which time Abram was 75 years old (Genesis 12:4), meaning he was born when Terah was 130. Thus his firstborn brother, Haran, was 60 years older than Abram. Haran’s son was Lot, Abram’s nephew. Twice later he is called Abram’s “brother’s son” (Genesis 12:5; 14:12), but once “his brother Lot” (Genesis 14:16), using the terms of family relationship loosely, as is customary in Semitic languages.

God’s choice of Abram for his faith, even though he was not the firstborn, is consistent with his blessing of Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, Joseph over his brothers, and Ephraim over Manasseh, so that we have this setting aside of the firstborn exampled through five generations, as though to show that the new creation (often represented by the number five), which is the promised seed through whom God’s covenants are fulfilled, is selected from those of faith and obedience, rather than simply natural lineage.

Haran had two daughters, Milcah who became the wife of Nahor, and Iscah. Josephus gives Haran’s daughters as “Sarai and Milcah,” and says both Nahor and Abram “married their nieces” (Antiquities 1,6,5), equating Sarai with Iscah. If so, then Abraham’s explanation in Genesis 20:12 would mean Sarah was “the [grand]daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother; and she became my wife.” (His claim “she is my sister,” Genesis 20:12, would then parallel the description of Lot as “his brother,” Genesis 14:16.) This would also mean Lot was the brother of Sarah, which may explain why he accompanied Abram out of Haran rather than remaining there with Nahor. (Perhaps Sarai, “princess,” was a second name for Iscah to accord more closely with her elder sister’s name Milcah, “queen.”)

Entering Canaan

After Terah died, Abram departed from Haran, at age 75, and came to Sichem, or Shechem. There the Lord appeared to him and for the first time affirmed what before had been provisional, “unto thy seed will I give this land” (Genesis 12:7). Abram commemorated the occasion with an altar, and its attendant sacrifice. He subsequently pitched his tent between Bethel and Hai, built another altar, and “called upon the name of the Lord.” These locations appeared again many years later as Abraham’s descendants received the promised land under Joshua, who set his men “between Bethel and Ai” (Joshua 8:9) and later gathered Israel at Shechem to reaffirm their covenant with God (Joshua 24), just as God had reaffirmed his covenant with Abram there many years before.

Abram’s travels form a small microcosm of what would occur to the Israelites years later. Abram went into Egypt because of a famine (Genesis 12:10), just as the Israelites would go into Egypt because of a famine. Abram’s relationship with Sarah was veiled (Genesis 12:19), as Joseph’s relationship with his brothers was veiled. The Lord plagued Pharaoh and his house “with great plagues” (Genesis 12:17) resulting in Abram’s release with his family and “all that he had . . . very rich in cattle, in silver, and in gold” (Genesis 13:1, 2), just as the Lord sent ten plagues upon Pharaoh and Egypt to release the Israelites with all their families, an abundance of cattle, and silver and gold spoiled from the Egyptians. Abram returned to the location “between Bethel and Hai” (Genesis 13:3), just as Israel under Joshua came to the same place.

Separated from Lot

After his return to Canaan it became apparent that he and Lot would have to separate for the sake of peace between their entourages. Abram, the senior, gave Lot first choice, who chose according to natural advantage the fertile valley of Sodom, not considering the wickedness of the environment. Lot would have cause to regret that decision when he fled to the mountains devoid of his wealth, just as the Great Company will collectively realize their laxity and ill-considered choices when they are forced by circumstances to make a nobler stand for the right. In Revelation Sodom represents Christendom, and Sodom’s demise represents the impending demise of Christendom (Revelation 11:8; Jeremiah 50:40).

After Lot separated from Abram God appeared again to the man of faith. “Look . . . northward, and southward, and eastward, and westward: for all the land which thou seest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed for ever. And I will make thy seed as the dust of the earth” (Genesis 13:14-16). At this instance of Abram’s faith put into practice, accepting the less productive part of the land, the Lord was very near to him. What a rich reward for his principled position. So with us, when we take a stand for the right, contrary to our natural preferences or interests, we find our hearts and sentiments very close to the Lord, and our minds at great peace.

In every choice of circumstance, in proportion to its weightiness, ought the Christian to consider chiefly the principles of righteousness, obedience, faith, trust, and sacrifice. Abram was a wealthy man. But his wealth was not his priority. His faith was his priority. As Jacob later preferred to flee a pauper, but with the riches of the Abrahamic covenant in his possession, so ought we to prefer, and rather choose, a more meager position or circumstance when it favors the spiritual interests of our calling. Our choices should always be regulated by our faith. All the more so should husbands and fathers make choices favorable to the spirit, and thus properly discharge their duty to their wives and children; all the more so should wives and mothers encourage their husbands and children, and teach their families, to value first the valuable things—the spiritual things. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33). This was the command of our Lord, who himself followed this counsel scrupulously.

But more than simply a command, we should wish for this from our heart. Our affections should be so intertwined with our spiritual hopes, so graciously bestowed by God, we should wish so much for this very best blessing, the spiritual blessing, for ourselves and for our families, that we would disdain a choice for the earthly over the heavenly. Is our faith dim or vibrant? Is our belief in the Lord’s promises so sure, so near, “so intimately nigh,” that “e’en the sweetest earthly” gain would be dim by contrast?

The Dust of the Earth

In this expression of God’s promise to Abram the focus is the land itself. This was appropriate to the occasion since the division of the land was the issue between Lot and Abram. The land of Canaan was promised to Abram’s natural seed, and the expression used to represent Abram’s seed in this case contains an earthly metaphor, “dust of the earth.”

On other occasions two other expressions were used, “stars of heaven” and “sand of the sea shore.” In every case the primary point was to express the great quantity of descendants Abram would have. But the use of each expression, to the patriarchs at least, seemed to connect with the subject at hand.

For example, in chapter 15 when Abram was concerned with the birth of a son who would turn out to be Isaac, God mentioned “the stars of heaven,” and Isaac represents the spiritual seed of Abram. When the promise was confirmed to Isaac the same expression was used (Genesis 26:4). When the expression was later confirmed to Jacob, who in contrast with Isaac represents the natural seed, the expression was “dust of the earth” as in Genesis 13:16 when the land was at issue (Genesis 28:14). At the sacrifice of Isaac, a picture of the ransom paid by our Lord, the all encompassing term “stars of the heaven and . . . sand which is upon the sea shore” was used (Genesis 22:17).

It seems “stars of heaven” applies to the spiritual seed, “sand of the sea” to mankind in the kingdom (Revelation 20:8), and “dust of the earth” to Israel, who inherits the land of promise. These three aspects also are represented in the women by whom Abraham fathered children, Sarah, Hagar and Keturah, and their children Isaac (church), Ishmael (Israel), and the six sons of Keturah (the world of mankind).

Four Kings from the East

Genesis chapter 14 contains the earliest Scriptural record of armed conflict. Four kings from the east—Amraphel of Shinar, Arioch of Ellasar, Chedorlaomer of Elam, and Tidal “king of Goiim” (NIV)—are identified as a coalition of forces which made war with five kings of the Sodom Valley. These localities are probably the Sumer, Larsa, Elam and Gutium of antiquity. Because there are extant records of these areas from antiquity, it is naturally a fertile area for investigation to seek links between this Scriptural record and the scattered records of the ancients. A solid connection here should be of assistance to some in the Christian world whose faith in the Genesis account may waver.

The problem, however, is the briefness of the account in this passage on the one hand, and the scarcity of documentation from antiquity on the other, more especially the latter. At one time it was popular to connect Amraphel, king of Shinar, with Hammurabi, king of Babylon, but now it is generally conceded that Hammurabi was much later than Abraham. Eugene Merrill, in his 1987 book Kingdom of Priests, concludes “it is most prudent to say at this time that . . . the kings of the east cannot be identified” (page 37).

However, in a recent paper by Bro. James Parkinson, “Resolving Chronology of the 2nd Millennium BC,” which builds on his earlier “Chronological Studies” (1963), an identification is suggested which we believe is correct. Amraphel, king of Shinar, is the same as Ur-Nammu, king of Sumer.

Genesis 14:1,5 show Amraphel came west twice, fourteen years separated. On the second occasion he was defeated, and verse 17 suggests he was killed. “A date-formula is preserved concerning [Ur-Nammu’s] fourth year which proclaims that `he made straight the road from below to above,’ which can be understood to mean a march from the lower sea [Persian Gulf] to the upper sea [the Mediterranean, on the north Syrian coast]. Fourteen years later he apparently died in battle” (Parkinson, p. 2, citing Cambridge Ancient History, 3rd edition, p. 597). Ur-Nammu is sometimes written Nammu-Ur. Deleting the opening letter and the redundant letters leaves amur, and appending a common Sumerian syllable “pul” or “phel” results in amurphel, which is close to “Amraphel” of Genesis 14.

The Rescue of Lot

Abram’s involvement with these four kings wasto rescue Lot, who was captured by these kings along with the Sodomites. Abram had a contingent of 318 “trained servants” (Genesis 14:14), and allies in the Amorites Mamre, Eshcol and Aner (verses 13, 24). If each of these supplied as many men as Abram, there would have been 1272 soldiers in this band which attacked the four kings from the east, giving some estimation of the size of armies in those early years. The attack was by night, with the element of surprise, and by God’s providence was successful.

On the route back “the king of Sodom went out to meet [Abram] after his return” (Genesis 14:17). The king of Sodom and many of his men had avoided captivity earlier (Genesis 14:10), probably there were a number of others from the cities of the plain who were likewise not taken captive. If so, it may naturally be wondered why Abram did not request a contingent from them to reinforce his troops in his dangerous mission. Perhaps, in a practical way, time was so much of the essence there was no opportunity. But it is possible that the renowned wickedness of the Sodomites dissuaded Abram from seeking their assistance, placing his confidence in the Lord, while doing what he conscientiously could in practical terms by utilizing the assistance of his closer neighbors.


On Abram’s victorious return, Melchizedek, king of Salem and “priest of the most high God,” met Abram with supplies of food, “bread and wine.” Paul recognized in Melchizedek a type of Christ, who also brings forth “bread and wine,” his flesh and blood, to sustain us in a deeper sense.

The name of this king is a compound name, “Melchi” (king) and “zedek” (righteousness). Thus Paul interprets this name to be “King of Righteousness,” and by profession he was “King of Salem,” or “King of Peace,” all of which are appropriate designations for Christ (Hebrews 7:2). Many years later another in Melchizedek’s line of rulers over Salem (by that time Jerusalem) used the name “Adoni [lord]-zedek,” but he was of a different character (Joshua 10:1-5), perhaps representing the antichrist, the corruption of Christ.

Melchizedek is not mentioned again until Psalms 110:4, where it was said to David, prophetically of Christ, “thou art a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.” It is noteworthy that David, to whom this promise was expressed, was the first Jewish king to obtain Jerusalem. As king he was “Melchi,” and the faithful priest of his day was Zadok, or (replacing the vowels) “Zedek.” Together they filled the two offices which later would be combined in the true “Melchi-zedek,” Christ.

The nobility of Abram is further shown in Genesis 14 by his refusal to be personally enriched by the spoils of Sodom which he retrieved in battle. “I will not take from a thread even to a shoe latchet . . . lest thou shouldest say, I have made Abram rich.” He allowed this for his confederates, but would not accept it for himself (Genesis 14:22-24).

A Covenant Sacrifice

Genesis 15 records God’s reassurance to Abram that he would have an heir “out of thine own bowels,” implying that to date he was childless. God affirmed that his seed would be numerous as the stars of heaven, and in token of this promise condescended to the custom of the times to seal his covenant with Abram. He instructed Abram to take particular animals for sacrifice, which were divided (except for the birds, comparatively small), and the pieces laid on the ground.

It was customary for the contracting parties to walk between these pieces, but as this was a one-sided promise by God to Abram, God was here the unilateral agent, the divine presence being represented by “a burning lamp that passed between those pieces” (Genesis 15:17). Further, God affirmed to Abram that the promised land would extend from the River of Egypt (not the Nile, but the Wadi El Arish in the Sinai Peninsula) to the Euphrates (as a northern border), encompassing ten peoples, who probably represent the world of mankind who will be blessed through the Abrahamic seed.

The animals were to be three years of age, excepting the birds, “a turtledove and a young pigeon,” probably both in their first year. If the ages have a meaning, the specification of “three” may be symbolic of atonement (3 days in the grave, 30 pieces of silver, 300 pence worth of ointment, 3000 persons saved at Pentecost, all connect “three” with the atonement provided in Jesus).

The sum of the ages, 11, may also be meaningful. This number appears in passages related to the sojourn of the church during the Gospel age. The goat-hair curtain, often thought to represent the saints’ participation in sacrifice with their lord, was of 11 strips, five in one panel joined to six in another (Exodus 26:9, five showing our status as new creatures, six showing we are still in the sinful flesh.) Samson, who pictures the Gospel age church, was betrayed through the contribution of 1,100 shekels of silver by each Philistine lord (Judges 16:5), and the same amount appears in the story about Dan which also pertains to the Gospel age (Judges 17:2). Deuteronomy 1:2 says the journey from Sinai to the border of Canaan, picturing the Gospel age journey of the saints, was a journey of about 11 days.

In Genesis 15:13 God specifies that the affliction of his seed would not terminate until 400 years. Taken on a the scale of a prophetic year, this would encompass 144,000 days, a numerical connection to the spiritual “seed of Abraham” developed during the Gospel age. As Isaac’s affliction began with Ishmael, so the affliction of the saints began with persecution from the Jews who did not embrace Messiah (Galatians 4:29). As the literal period of affliction ended with the plagues of Exodus, so the Gospel age affliction of the saints ends with the plagues of Revelation.

During the Gospel age the divine presence is represented in Christ, with eyes “as a flame of fire,” passing among the seven candlesticks, just as a “burning lamp” passed between the pieces of Abram’s sacrifice (Revelation 1:13, 14; Genesis 15:17). The smoking furnace which accompanied the lamp pictures the trials of the Egyptian bondage to the natural seed (Deuteronomy 4:20; 1 Kings 8:51; Jeremiah 11:4), and the trials of the Gospel age to the spiritual seed.

From Ishmael to Isaac

Genesis 16 narrates the birth of Ishmael, in Abram’s and Sarai’s endeavor to cooperate with the divine program. The procedure they used, though altogether unfitting today, was an accepted custom of that time and culture. Hagar’s lack of humility in the arrangement upset her mistress, causing Hagar to flee, but an angel directed Hagar to “submit thyself under her hands.” She returned (verse 9), and soon Ishmael was born. Abram was 86.

A thirteen year gap in the record follows, and Abram is next 99 years old when he is instructed to be circumcised, with the wonderful news that subsequently a child would be born to him through his wife Sarai. Their names were changed to Abraham and Sarah by the addition in each of the letter he, the fifth letter of their alphabet, the letter which appears twice in the tetragrammaton YHWH which is frequently rendered Jehovah. It is as though God is inbreathing life to this couple to fulfill his divine purposes, and representing this great blessing by drawing from his own name to change theirs. The changed names betoken the life-giving spirit infused into them; that the letter he is an aspirate, or breathing out, gives even a physical connection to this thought. “Abraham” means father of a multitude, and “Sarah” a lady of rank and nobility.

The precious child arrived a year later. He was named Isaac, “laughter,” a name chosen by God (Genesis 17:19) in honor of the joy of this triumph. “God hath made me to laugh, so that all that hear will laugh with me” (Genesis 21:6), said Sarah.

Meanwhile the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot’s deliverance, his wife’s death, and the unseemly births of Moab and Ammon, intervene (chapter 19). Even after Lot’s deliverance by Abram more than 13 years earlier, Lot continued with Sodom in spite of its wickedness. Perhaps some status accrued to him by virtue of his uncle’s rescue of the Sodomites, augmenting the attraction which induced him toward Sodom originally. But none of these advantages made his wrong choice right. Do we sometimes continue in unholy surroundings which could be avoided? Lot should have left the area. Now he was forced to, with almost literally nothing but the shirt on his back, and the loss of his wife. As a righteous man his soul had been “vexed with the filthy conversation of the wicked” (2 Peter 2:7), but he had not stirred himself to leave (cf. Songs of Solomon 3:5, NASB).

A Move in Location

Genesis 18:1 shows Abraham was “in the plains of Mamre,” which Genesis 13:18 says “is in Hebron,” when they received the news a son would be born. Hebron, the burying place of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is intimately associated with the Abrahamic covenant, and it is noteworthy that the annunciation came at this location. Centuries later, when Mary and Elizabeth rejoiced over the children they would bear in fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant (Luke 1:71,72), they were in “the hill country . . . into a city of Judah” (Luke 1:39), which Joshua 20:7 and 21:11 locate as the area of Hebron.

But Genesis 20:1 shows Abraham moved from there before Isaac was born and traveled south to Gerar, in the northern Negeb. His motive for this move is unclear, but Abraham and Sarah used the same story they had used inEgypt, calling Sarah Abraham’s sister (verse 5). Abimelech (“father-king,” probably a title rather than a name), the king of Gerar, took Sarah, but in a dream was warned in strict terms, “thou art a dead man . . . for she is a man’s wife” (Genesis 20:3). The dream shook Abimelech, who protested his innocence through ignorance, and had not touched Sarah. In a second dream Abimelech was told to restore Sarah to Abraham and he could live by having Abraham pray for him; otherwise Abimelech and “all that are thine” would surely die. Abimelech reported the dream to his people who were all anxious to rectify the situation.

Abimelech “took sheep, and oxen, and menservants, and women servants, and gave them unto Abraham, and restored him Sarah his wife. But now the news comes that Nahor has eight sons by Milcah, and four others by a concubine, 12 sons total. Could this be another representation of natural Israel, part of the family of faith, but distinct from the spiritual seed?

The Death of Sarah and Abraham

Genesis 23:1 records the death of Sarah at age 127, evidently making her the only woman in the Old Testament whose age at death is directly supplied. At this time Isaac would have been 37, three years before his marriage to Rebecca.

Before the birth of Isaac Abraham had moved southward, and Genesis 21:34 says “Abraham sojourned in the Philistines’ land many days.” It was there that Isaac had grown to maturity, perhaps representing that the seed of blessing is developed under foreign circumstances.

Genesis 23:2, however, says Sarah died in Hebron, and “Abraham came to mourn” for her. Abraham purchased a burial site for 400 shekels of silver, after declining to accept it as a gift. The purchase was probably insisted on as a token of Abraham’s faith that God would give him the land in due time, but that due time would not come until the end of the predicted 400 years (Genesis 15:13).

Some time after Sarah’s passing, “again Abraham took a wife, and her name was Keturah.” As Sarah, who bore the promised child, represented the spiritual part of the Abrahamic covenant, so Keturah, who bore six children (an earthly number), probably represents the earthly part of the Abrahamic covenant. Her children may have been born earlier, while she was a concubine, but when her status improved to wife, the status of her sons was elevated accordingly. Perhaps this represents that mankind has existed formany years, but are granted new status in the kingdom when the earthly blessings promised under the Abrahamic covenant are due of fulfillment toward “all the families of the earth.”

Abraham “died in a good old age,” at 175 years (Genesis 25:8). He was 100 at the birth of Isaac, and he lived in the promised land for 100 years before he died. He now awaits his resurrection, not many years hence, at the crescendo of Israel’s trials. The enmity the Arabs presently feel to the Jews will no doubt dissipate rapidly when Father Abraham explains to them the blessings God has for each. Meanwhile, let us emulate the faith of Abraham, “the father of all them that believe” (Romans 4:11).